Since getting approval for another six years of urban renewal in Boston, Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) Director Brian Golden said the agency has been busy cataloging Land Development Agreements (LDAs) in the South End over the last few months and would be coming to the community to help sort out the good from the bad.
In an hour-long presentation to the South End Forum on Tuesday night, Sept. 6, Golden said the BRA has now identified that the BRA took some 457 parcels of land in the South End in the 1960s and 1970s and that resulted in 387 identified LDAs, many of which carry deed restrictions that preserve things like open space, parks, easements and even community gardens. Without an Urban Renewal Area in force, those protections could disappear, Golden said.
Part of the extension agreement between the BRA and the City Council was to begin cataloging and analyzing the many LDAs, which to date, had never been done before. The process, he said, will be the first step towards re-drawing the boundaries of the Urban Renewal area in the South End, which popular consensus seems to call for shrinking the boundary area significantly.
“We are now looking at the 387 LDAs we’ve identified in the South End and trying to identify the restrictions present in these LDAs and hoping to make a determination if we want the restriction in perpetuity,” Golden said. “Neighbors will help us determine if these restrictions are valuable or maybe they are now obsolete…We will make sure we have full transparency with that and make sure the LDAs are public so everyone can decide if they need to stay. This cataloging has never been done before. I find a lot of this stuff incomprehensible. It’s not that we didn’t know where LDAs were, but they were never cataloged in a way where we could make sense of them and see them. We will have to make important decisions about these LDAs in the South End and we can’t do it without you…We can only make a meaningful and legitimate determination if the neighborhood tells us what it values and what is important.”
Golden indicated that a very important part of Urban Renewal for a place that is thriving like the South End – which for the most part, he said, doesn’t fit into the blight category required for Urban Renewal – are the old LDAs. Those agreements harken back decades and have been covered by the dust of years of indifference until recently. Now, those LDAs are in the process of being defined – as to what they call for, what they protect, and if those protections are important anymore.
“Part of the agreement was to take a long look at places like the South End to re-draw boundaries, but we didn’t have the luxury of re-tooling the map because the time was running out,” he said. “The BRA under the previous administration, I don’t know why they weren’t paying more attention to this renewal, but they weren’t…We’re committed to looking at boundaries when the six-year extension comes to a conclusion…We needed to be very careful about re-drawing the boundaries here because these deed restrictions (in LDAs) are often tied to the existence of an Urban Renewal Area…These deed restrictions could go away if they find themselves drawn out of an Urban Renewal Area.”
Councilor Tito Jackson, who was in the audience, said he voted against Urban Renewal for this very reason.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable to not know what we own and to not have it cataloged,” he said.
Shifting gears from LDAs, there came the rather odd request, at least from the BRA’s standpoint, from those on the Forum to use eminent domain powers to take the Hotel Alexandra at the corner of Mass Avenue and Washington Street, a building that Forum Moderator Steve Fox called an “open, festering wound to the South End.”
For the BRA, eminent domain is a tricky word given the past practice of taking entire neighborhoods and demolishing them. That said, the stately corner-piece building – which is owned by the Boston Church of Scientologists and hasn’t been gainfully used as a hotel since the 1950s – might be just the place to exercise those powers.
Carol Blair, president of the Chester Square Area Neighborhood Association, led the call for the taking – saying the BRA has allowed the owners to sit on the blighted property for far too long.
“When I think of blighted properties where communities would benefit from an eminent domain taking – I have long list of them – but the politics of doing that is tricky and the legal issues are tricky,” Golden said, choosing his words carefully. “When those tools are used, often it can be costly and yield litigation…We owe you a substantive response and if we don’t think it’s and appropriate parcel for eminent domain, we should explain why.”
One other noteworthy item in the long discussion was how the South End fit into the larger development context of the City. While places like Dorchester, South Boston/Waterfront, East Boston and Allston/Brighton are booming with BRA development activity, the South End was somewhere in the middle within most categories and far behind it’s neighbor South Boston.
That said, one slide in the BRA presentation indicated that the South End was the third highest neighborhood for square footage of properties currently under review. While some of those properties won’t ever be approved, it tended to show that there is a great deal of development activity looming on the horizon.
First in that category was downtown with 3.097 million square feet, Roxbury with 2.072 million square feet, and the South End with 1.464 million square feet under review.